ATHENS -- Nearly 540,000 refugees and migrants have arrived on the Greek islands since the beginning of the year, according to the International Organization for Migration. In a span of just five days last week, 48,000 refugees and migrants crossed from Turkey to the islands.
Committed activists, volunteers and NGOs are there every day to help those arriving ashore. Among them are the employees of the international medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF.
MSF has been operating for the past year on Greece's Dodecanese islands, including Kos, which has witnessed a massive influx of migrants and refugees in recent months. The organization offers medical care and psychological support, and also distributes essentials to refugees who arrive on the islands or are assembled at the Macedonian border. MSF also operates two ships that conduct search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, which have been credited with rescuing 15,000 people in the first four months of the mission.
The majority of the people arriving come from Syria. Among the refugees are people with chronic illnesses and pregnant women. Sometimes, entire families make the dangerous journey.
While MSF pays its workers a nominal fee, volunteer work is still an integral part of the organization's culture.
HuffPost Greece spoke with members of MSF’s team on Kos about what motivated them to leave their homes and take care of others in a difficult situation -- one we could all experience at some point in our lives. Who did they meet among the refugees and whom will they never forget?
Vangelis Orfanoudakis, 32, coordinates MSF's mission on Kos. He has been on the islands since May and has witnessed the influx refugees grow fivefold in just three months. He says August was the most difficult month.
Orfanoudakis is worried about what lies ahead for the refugees, and he’s frustrated with the lack of infrastructure to accommodate them upon arrival. “Now, refugees are stranded on the street, trapped for over 20 days, waiting for the documentation which will allow them to continue their journey,” he explains.
Local authorities' disagreement over whether to build a refugee reception center is the main reason behind the shortages, Orfanoudakis says. “They think that this will attract more people on the island,” he says. He mentions that as a result of these tensions, authorities shut down an abandoned hotel that refugees used as an unofficial campsite.
Worried about the change in weather conditions -- rain and cold pose dangerous health risks for people living out in the open -- MSF decided to set up big tents on the islands of Leros and Kalymnos to shelter the new arrivals.
Stephanos Stephanidis, a 43-year-old interpreter of Arabic, joined the MSF team in July. He is Greek, but was born in Cairo and lived there until he was 21.
Stephanidis’ role is emotionally taxing. He translates during sessions with refugees and the team’s psychologists, and becomes both a voice for the therapist as well as the refugees. He says he tries hard not to show his emotions.
“I become the psychologist's voice; I translate whatever she says to the refugees. I always try to follow her style and tone, but sometimes I am affected. Maybe, more than anything, this experience helps me appreciate things we take for granted, such as a bed or our own bathroom.”
“What always overwhelms me is when someone expresses their will to commit suicide because of the frustration and uncertainty they feel,” Stephanidis says. “When we finish one or two sessions, however, the same person tells us, ‘You made me change my mind.’ This is something that stays with you.”
This experience helps me appreciate things we take for granted, such as a bed or our own bathroom.
Stephanidis’ work inevitably changes his own perspective on life. “I have seen people who get out of the sea holding their child, a few months old. I put myself in their shoes when my 18 year-old daughter goes out in Athens at night, and I worry. And I think to myself, how can I worry when the refugee crosses the sea with his child to save both their lives?”
His message to others is to “be human with our fellow men who need us.”
Marina Spyridaki, the team's 30-year-old psychologist, visits areas where refugees are staying with an interpreter and explains who she is and how she can help. Usually, they come find her later -- alone.
Many of the refugees are very traumatized, Spyridaki explains. They are troubled by the war, the loss, the agony of surviving and the search for a safe place, but also by the sea voyage to Europe. She says some children who fell overboard during the crossing refuse to go close to the water now.
Spyridaki recalls the case of a mother who had lost one of her children, a 22-day-old baby. The woman's husband and older daughter had survived, but she couldn't bring herself to pay attention to the child who had been saved. "At some point, the little girl went close to her with a wet face and a handkerchief and the mother started taking care of her,” she says.
Other refugees Spyridaki has met initially appeared very strong, but broke down all of a sudden. “A father who had been solid as a rock taking care of his children broke out crying when his son started calling for his mother.”
Another father she met stays awake at night as his family sleeps on the street.
“These kinds of problems would cease to exist if there were organized hospitality centers for these people,” Spyridaki says.
Lykourgos Alexakis, 37, will soon be going to a foreign land himself, but his circumstances are completely different from those of the refugees. Alexakis' wife already works in Germany, where he's planning to work as a pathologist. He wanted to participate in one more MSF mission before leaving Greece, and ended up on Kos.
“When I see Syrians -- among them, many doctors -- it's like I see my family,” he says. “Suddenly, something happened and they became refugees. It is not something so distant.”
Having worked in the Central African Republic, Alexakis is used to difficult conditions “in places where nobody else goes."
Most of the patients he sees in Kos suffer from medical issues related to the journey and living in harsh conditions -- respiratory infections, skin problems and injuries. But the medical team also sees diabetics and people with high blood pressure. "Imagine a diabetic staying in a park in Kos," Alexakis says. "He is practically homeless, he might have lost his medication at sea, or even if he has them with him, he can't keep them in the fridge and he doesn't have access to medical care. What is this person supposed to do?”
When I see Syrians, among them many doctors, it's like I see my family. Suddenly, something happened and they became refugees. It is not something so distant.
Alexakis often goes out with MSF’s mobile medical team, which uses a small boat to travel to small islands like Leros, Kalymnos and Symi.
“I'll never forget how we saw a smashed boat on the steep rocks of Pserimos and a little further, people trying to climb the rock," he recalls. "Among them was an old woman around 70 years old who had a very hard time. Even we were having trouble approaching, so we had to stop about 10 meters from the coast. The lifeguard jumped in immediately and pulled them onto the boat one by one. Fortunately, everything went well and all the people were saved. But imagine, one of them had kidney disease and had to be taken to the hospital right away.”
Farhad Agajan, from Afghanistan, is 27 and the team’s other interpreter. This is his fifth mission with MSF. He has been on Kos since June and his language skills have proven especially valuable -- he speaks Urdu, Farsi, Pashto, Hindi, Dari and Punjabi and can communicate with people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
Agajan wants to help those who are suffering through what he and his family experienced in Afghanistan. “I want to offer them what I didn't have,” he says. “If someone had taken me by the hand when I arrived in Greece as a minor and was forced to sleep in parks, I would have studied. I would be a different person. A lot of my relatives were doctors or nurses. I wanted to study to be a nurse in Greece, but it wasn't easy for me.”
When Agajan talks with refugees, he easily identifies with what they went through. “Everyone tells you that they have seen death with their own eyes, but God gave them a second chance, a second life."
"Just like me," he adds. "When I was a kid in Afghanistan, I had two options if I stayed there: either die or get my gun and shoot, too. So, you think to yourself, it's worth trying something different. My mother told me the same thing. Only in Europe do we see a safe life.”
But while Europe is a safe haven to many, Agajan says it's also to blame for forcing people to risk drowning in their effort to reach the continent. “I really don't know what to say about this,” he concludes.
Anastasia Papachristou, 38, has been involved with volunteer groups since she was a teenager. A mother of three and a surgeon in a private clinic, she has been on Kos for two months.
“Right now we are part of history. It is written before us. I wanted to actively participate and not just observe. You can have a deeper insight this way,” Papachristou says.
She looks at the crisis on the islands through a mother's eyes. “Everyone is a unique person with a unique course and unique dreams for the future. They got away from war to follow those dreams, so that they and their children could live in dignity. Unfortunately, so many of them lost everything at sea. Even their own life.”
The patients Papachristou sees in Kos are often chronically ill or people with special needs. Some of them left their homes because they couldn’t find proper medical care in the hostile environment of their own countries. She also sees a lot of respiratory infections, diarrhea due to malnutrition and injuries from the crossing. “Everyone will try to feed themselves any way they can,” she says.
So many of them lost everything at sea. Even their own life.
Dora Chatzi, 32, is a health promoter whose postgraduate work focused on handling medical crises.
She arrived on Kos in August, at a time of increased tension on the island due to insufficient infrastructure and the increasing number of arrivals.
“My job is to update all the people I can on the medical care provided by our team. Practically, this means getting out on the streets and talking with the people who live on the town streets,” she says.
Many refugees welcome the information. “They don't know what they are up against. They are lost.”
The team prioritizes vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and children, sick people and families with children, to whom the team distributes basic supplies and tents.
“I'll never forget the people I met in Kos during this time. They all have their own stories,” Chatzi says.
“It saddens me that we don't welcome them as we should and that we don't honor them with the respect that is required in situations like these,” she continues. “We are all people, and we should handle this in humanitarian terms. Why? Because it is a matter of justice. We should be fair to people and always put ourselves in their shoes.”
This story originally appeared on HuffPost Greece and was translated into English. It has been edited for an international audience.
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